SAS shooting of three IRA men at Coagh 'justified', coroner rules

The use of lethal force by SAS soldiers in an ambush that killed three IRA men in Co Tyrone in 1991 was justified, a coroner has ruled.

Delivering his provisional findings in the Coagh inquest, coroner Mr Justice Michael Humphreys said he was satisfied the use of force was “reasonable” as the soldiers had an honest belief that it was necessary in order to prevent loss of life.

However, the coroner also concluded that the military operation was not planned in a manner which minimised to the greatest extent possible the need for recourse to lethal force.

The inquest into the deaths of Peter Ryan, Tony Doris and Lawrence McNally in Coagh, Co Tyrone, on June 3 1991, opened in 2022.

The three men were intercepted as they drove in a stolen car through Coagh by SAS soldiers, who suspected they intended to murder a member of the security forces.

All three were shot dead in a hail of gunfire.

The inquest was told that up to 150 rounds were fired.

Delivering his verdict in the legacy case, Mr Justice Humphreys said McNally died as a result of gunshot wounds to the head and heart, Doris as a result of gunshot wounds to the head and Ryan by a gunshot wound to the chest.

Scene of the shooting in Coagh.

He also ruled that McNally and Ryan were shot by Soldier G, while Doris was shot and killed by Soldier B.

The coroner said the three men were members of the East Tyrone brigade of IRA and were on “active service” when they were shot.

He said the background to the case was a “surge of activity” in the area by the East Tyrone IRA.

Mr Justice Humpreys said: “This bloody recent history provides the backdrop to the events at Coagh.”

Setting out the events, the coroner said that the security forces had received intelligence that the East Tyrone IRA intended to murder a former member of the UDR at a public car park in the village.

A specialist military unit was tasked to mount a “hard arrest” operation. This included a “reaction group” to effect the arrests and a “cover group” hidden in a modified flatbed truck to provide protection.

The coroner told the court that when the stolen car came to a halt at the car park entrance, the rear passenger door opened and a man wearing a balaclava armed with a rifle started to get out, pointing the weapon in the direction of Soldier L.

After an order was given, the side of the the lorry was lowered and a number of shots fired.

The man with the rifle fell back into the car, which travelled on and crashed into another car around 30 metres away. Several further shots were then fired.

Mr Justice Humphreys was highly critical of actions by soldiers to destroy a video of the events from a surveillance location.

He said: “There could scarcely have been more probative and significant evidence of the events which unfolded at Coagh than a video taken from close range showing the arrival of the vehicle and the engagement of the soldiers with its occupants.

“If this had been available, it would have rendered the task of the inquest on many of the issues straightforward.

“It would also, of course, have been of central importance to the RUC, whose role it was to assess whether any crime had been committed by the soldiers.”

He said the soldiers who gave evidence to the inquest about the destruction of the video had “demonstrated a clear and unequivocal willingness to subvert the rule of law”.

The coroner added: “Rather than condemning them, the response of senior officers in the British Army has been to excuse, justify and support such reprehensible conduct.”

Turning to the original RUC investigation, Mr Justice Humphreys said police had failed to challenge accounts given by soldiers, had failed to interview the soldiers promptly after the shootings occurred and had failed to investigate the planning of the operation at all.

The coroner said it was unclear whether this was a result of direct orders from above or merely reflective of attitudes of the time.

He added: “It can only be concluded that the RUC investigation into the shootings was woefully inadequate.

“A decision was reached and relayed to the DPP on the basis of untested and unchallenged accounts of soldiers.

“Evidence at the scene was wantonly disregarded. No questions were asked of those who had formulated the plan and its methodology.

“Had it not been for the holding of this inquest, many of the facts around these events would simply never have been known.”

The coroner said an issue of fact to be determined was whether any member of the IRA unit had fired on the soldiers, pointing out that several military witnesses believed they were involved in a gunfight.

He concluded, on the balance of probabilities, that no IRA member discharged his weapon.

Solicitor Padraig O Muirigh with members of the families of Peter Ryan and Tony Doris Credit: centre

Delivering his verdict, the coroner said: “In each case, the use of lethal force was justified as the soldiers had an honest belief that it was necessary in order to prevent loss of life.

“The use of force by the soldiers was, in the circumstances they believed them to be, reasonable.

“The operation was not planned and controlled in such a way as to minimise to the greatest extent possible the need for recourse to lethal force.”

Speaking outside court, solicitor Padraig O Muirigh, who acts for the families of Peter Ryan and Tony Doris, said while they were disappointed at the finding that the force used was justified, they welcomed criticism of the army operation.

“The clients that I represent have always maintained there was a shoot-to-kill policy operating at this particular time. What these findings show is that a kill zone was effectively set up,” he said.

“The planning of the operation was deliberate to avoid an arrest situation, and as the coroner said we had an inevitable outcome.

“What we see in the aftermath is a very clear cover-up of that shoot-to-kill policy, both in terms of how the British Army destroyed a crucial video which would have assisted this coroner and important documentation relevant to the inquest, and as he describes it, the woefully inadequate RUC investigation meant that the full facts would never be before this inquest so that cover-up was also a critical part, in my view, of this operation.”

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